His tour came through my parts a few months ago. The next morning, I saw some young people in T-shirts from the show as I was getting my bagel. I asked them how it was, and they went on for quite a while about how amazing it was.
Artists like Springsteen and The Rolling Stones have plenty of young fans, but the older ones take all the oxygen. Petty was accessible, constantly moving forward while honoring the past in a way that didn't feel like nostalgia.
Here's what I posted on our Facebook page this morning. Almost hit send on it yesterday when the story first broke, but got the news that he was still on life support.
Petty wrote from personal experience, but made it our experience. "Refugee" is about feeling trapped, which is how his record company made him feel at the time; "American Girl" is about longing for something more out of life, with his hometown of Gainesville, Florida as the backdrop. After someone burned his house down in 1987, he wrote one of his most personal songs, "I Won't Back Down," which he thought was "too obvious" when he wrote it. What's obvious now is that it's a powerful and sincere anthem of resilience.
He was known for his integrity in standing up for the artists and fans against the corporate money grabbers. When his label, MCA, tried to make Hard Promises the first major album priced at $9.98 (going rate was $8.98), Petty dug in his heels, threatening to name the album "$8.98" if they tried.
Tom Petty used his powers for good. He hosted a fantastic show on Sirius/XM called "Tom Petty's Buried Treasure," which he curated with hidden gems, making for some very satisfying discovery in a way no algorithm could.
He championed the human element in music, which is especially acute in his 2002 song "The Last DJ." Released at a time when corporate radio was shushing local voices so they could save money by piping the same transmission to multiple stations, the song made it clear to those voices (this writer included) that someone still cared.
His music videos were groundbreaking, and they still hold up. Often surreal ("Don't Come Around Here No More") and always entertaining, they earned him an MTV Video Vanguard Award in 1994. Many of his videos started with him opening a book to reveal the story.
He and the Heartbreakers recently wrapped up their 40th (!) anniversary tour. It was triumphant, with an audience that crossed generations, united by the music. Millennials aren't all into EDM and the squiggly sounds of today's hits - many love classic rock. Petty was one the last really accessible rockers on the top tier. You'll see many young people with T-shirts from that tour because they could afford to go with money left over for the merch tent.
Petty had both personal genius and the ability to find and nurture top talent. The Heartbreakers are an incredible band, with two members, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, around from the start (actually, even earlier - they with Petty in Mudcrutch). When Petty was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, it was with his band.
Outside of the Heartbreakers, Petty also collaborated with the best and brightest. Along with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and George Harrison, he was in the Traveling Wilburys. Dave Stewart of Eurythmics co-wrote "Don't Come Around Here No More"; Stevie Nicks wanted to BE a Heartbreaker. Expect a deluge of well-deserved tributes.